Reviewed: December 31, 2007
Released: May 1, 2007
Because there arenít enough sci-fi first person shooters pitting a lone veteran against armies of opponents on some space colony gone amok, Black Element Software took it upon themselves to bring us a strangely familiar shooter that does basically everything right, but tries absolutely nothing new. If you've played games like Doom 3 and F.E.A.R., you'll be right at home here. Alpha Prime is not only the name of this first person shooter, itís also the name of the space mining colony where our lone protagonist has been sent in to rescue his dear old drinking buddy from the clutches of the evil Corporation. Yes, the same Corporation that exists in nearly every dystopic sci-fi future since we first heard about it in the Aliens series. Man, the future is going to totally suck, guys.
Alpha Prime Features:
If youíve played any first person shooter before, you know how to play Alpha Prime. Standard default controls, fully customizable. The movement was fluid and familiar, run speed was good, didnít feel overly slow or too fast. Jumping was a tad unrealistic which is good because personally I canít stand games where you can only jump as high as your knees. Weapons have two modes of fire. Shooting ďfrom the hipĒ where youíre running and gunning, with the left mouse button. And if you want more accurate fire you hold down the right mouse button to ďaimĒ, then shoot with left button. This works particularly well with the sniper rifle, as one might expect, but you donít get much ammo for that weapon.
There are no new surprises in weapon variety that you havenít already seen a million times over. You get the hatchet, which youíll never use after the first scene you find it. You get the pistol which youíll only use if youíre running out of ammo on the other weapons. You get a nice, high damage, short range shotgun. Youíll get an assault rifle that shoots some kind of pulse ammo thatís not exactly like a modern assault rifle but close enough. The assault rifle will be your mainstay weapon that you use the most, because thatís the weapon most of your enemies will have, so youíll get the most ammo for it. Itís full-auto or of course you can shoot in bursts.
There is a sniper rifle, which is by far the best long range weapon, but you donít get much ammo for it. Youíll get some grenades and a rocket launcher too for indirect fire and major damage. Youíll eventually run across the flame thrower which not only looks ridiculous, but is also almost worthless since it can only be used at close range, and youíll be getting hammered by the ruthless AI while youíre just standing there inflicting seemingly little damage with it.
The vast majority of the game play is spent in firefights against crazed space miners, gun-toting robots, space marines, and the like. There are three difficulty settings for the game, but even on the easy setting the difficulty can get absolutely brutal by mid-game. Enemy AI is very competent. They know how to take cover and dodge. But at times itís like the AI doesnít kick in until youíre shooting it, making a few of the fights a trivial case of making a carefully aimed head shot from plain view before the AI even activates. This isnít always the case, sometimes the exact opposite problem happens Ė the AI starts shooting at you before youíve even been in view for more than a fraction of a second.
One really annoying thing about the enemies is that their aim is almost uncanny in its accuracy, always managing to hit you from very long range while youíre lucky if you can even see them much less damage them effectively. Sometimes this means itís more effective to switch to the shotgun and rush in to blast at close range rather than let them whither your health down at long range while you manage to do next to nothing to them. You will need to use cover a lot to survive this game, but there is no special ďcoverĒ moves like in recent games such as Gears of War or Uncharted: Drakeís Fortune, or older ones like Kill.Switch. You can use crouch effectively, however, so you will want to get familiar with that key. You can also lean left or right to lean out and take shots.
One other feature that will help you a little bit is the ďbullet time,Ē which is taken straight from Max Payne and F.E.A.R. You shoot up on this strange mineral called Hubbardium (presumably after L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer), which for some reason gives you the ability to slow time, while it just turns everyone else into raving homicidal lunatics. Using Hubbardium does help some, but for the most part itís over so fast you tend to not use it except in the direst situations, which kind of takes the fun out of it. Still, any little edge to combat the deadly accurate AI is a boon.
There are a few physics puzzles tossed in for a bit of a change of pace from the run and gun. Most of these take the form of you using your ability to remote control fork lifts and robots and other machinery to move crates and other obstructions. One annoying segment of the game has you moving a big pile of crates out of the way of a train track, with the added frustration of having to run back and forth to a stationary oxygen supply in between crates because itís in a no-atmosphere area. Itís not really challenging, itís just something to slow you down from getting to the end quicker. While Alpha Prime has a very nice physics engine that lets you manipulate almost any object in the game, it really isnít put to the best use and even the puzzles designed to take advantage of it are rather uninspiring or annoying.
The gameís story is just interesting enough to make you want to keep playing. There are a few times where the game spoils itself for what might have been an interesting plot twist, but you see it coming a mile away so it just ends up not really being all that compelling. Some of the NPCs you meet through the game are pretty entertaining, however, especially Paolo Bellini, a comedic character who helps you for one segment of the game. Most of the story is pretty grim which seems to be common for FPS fare, so the few lighter moments are remembered fondly. There are a few surprises near the end, but the whole setting and dialog and everything is so bleak itís really hard to enjoy it.
Without a doubt the graphics are Alpha Primeís best feature. Not quite state of the art, but theyíre as good as a lot of A+ titles from only a year or so ago. They definitely give Doom 3, Prey, and F.E.A.R. a run for their money. The technical capabilities of the engine used in Alpha Prime are pretty impressive. The character models are very well done and the animation is usually excellent most of the time. The enemies definitely reminded me too much of F.E.A.R. with the goggled/masked commandos, but there are also plenty of killer robots for a little variety as well.
The only downside to the graphics is that the setting they have chosen, a space mining colony, is such a tired clichť setting that weíve seen in a zillion games it still ends up looking kind of stale in some ways. The environments are highly detailed and realistic, but they arenít particularly interesting or pretty to look at. Some of the best parts of the game were when you get to go outside of the mining facility itself and race across the planetoidís surface in a space buggy.
Alpha Prime supports a wide variety of resolutions up to 1600x1200. Graphics options such as specular effects, shader models, shadows, reflections, FSAA and anisotropic filtering, can be individually set according to your PCís capabilities. It may be a bit overwhelming, but even my somewhat outdated system was able to handle nearly all the eye candy turned on at a reasonably high resolution.
The game also supports the Matrox TripleHead2Go, which is some special hardware you can buy to allow you to play supported video games across up to three different monitors. Iím sure this requires some serious horsepower to handle the effective 3840 x 1024 resolution, but if you have the uber-rig itís nice to know that it is supported.
Most of the sound effects in Alpha Prime are a bit false sounding or for some reason puny sounding. Like the assault rifle, which youíll use almost all the time, sounds a little bit like some kind of star wars ray gun or something but it just doesnít really feel meaty enough. The shotgun is probably the only weapon with a satisfying loud blast. Another problem is that the protagonist wonít say a world while heís being shot to pieces, so if youíre not paying attention to the health display you really arenít even aware sometimes that youíre being whittled away. The game does support Creative's X-Fi, which this reviewer doesn't have, so perhaps my problem is just a lack of the proper hardware to take full advantage of the sound.
As for the voice acting, it felt very uneven. Sometimes it can be very good, such as when the NPC Paolo Bellini is on stage. But at other times it just sounds stilted and unnatural. Overall it isnít bad enough to be distracting, but it doesnít really endear you to the characters either which is something that voice acting should really bring to the table. I found myself disliking almost all of the characters, including the protagonist, the more I heard them talk.
The music is mostly strange ambient noises with the occasional loud blast of heavy metal rock music. The music sounded very familiar even though Iím sure itís original, but youíve heard this style before in games like Unreal, Quake, and the Doom series. Itís fairly solid and rarely annoying, and even helped get the adrenaline going a few times. The only complaint I have with the music is that sometimes it would start up with a rapid rock montage for no apparent reason, even though there was no action going on screen at the time.
If Alpha Prime had been a full priced retail game, it would be nearly impossible to recommend it primarily because it is so highly derivative of so many games weíve played many times over. But thankfully it has been given a price that is actually a pretty good deal for what you get. Sure, itís a single-player only first person shooter with relatively no replay value (aside from replaying again on a harder setting, if youíre a complete masochist), but it does offer a good 15-20 hours of game play for the reasonable price of $20 street value.
So, if you are looking for a relatively by-the-numbers first person shooter with a decent story to follow, and competent AI opponents, you could do worse than give Alpha Prime a try. Thereís also a demo, so thereís no risk in giving it a try to see if it is your cup of tea or not.
There are probably a lot worse ways you could spend 20 bones if youíre a big fan of the first person shooter genre, especially if youíre looking for a single-player game that can give you a decent challenge for a few hours. Alpha Prime takes no risks with newfangled ideas and instead imitates great games that have come before it to bring us a well-crafted first person shooter that basically does it all almost perfectly. While it may be derivative, it does have a certain appeal to it and a competent story that you may enjoy if youíre a fan of dark sci-fi drama.
There have certainly been far worse games in the extremely well-traveled FPS genre. For what it is, Alpha Prime delivers the goods and ends up being an engaging experience. Thanks to its high difficulty and ďMĒ rating, which is probably for the excessive use of four letter words throughout the gameís dialogue, Alpha Prime is for older gamers who have a good amount of FPS experience.